Wave 6 – Nemed and the Fir Bolg

Mythology of the Not Chosen

A – Nemedians
Hope, Greed, Oppression and Anger

The land of Ireland lay empty after Partholon’s passing for thirty years.  Another group of people then arrived, led by Nemed, who was a distant relative of Partholon.  These people made huge change to the landscape clearing twelve plains and firmly marking their presence on the land.  Nemed had set out with thirty four ships, each crewed by thirty over a year previously.

Near the start of their voyage, the Nemedians came upon a tower of gold jutting up out of the sea, covered by sea water at high tide and laid bare by the sun’s rays at a low ebb, they were inflamed by greed at the sight of it and assaulted the Tower of Gold.  So intent were the Nemedians in taking the tower they did not notice as the sea began to rise around them sweeping their boats away and through their greed and inattention all but one ship was lost and most of Nemed’s men were drowned.   He managed to get all of the women on to the remaining ship however and arrived in Ireland with his four sons and a good host.

When they arrived four new lakes burst forth as a sign of their welcome.  Nemed’s wife, Macha, was the first of his company to die in Ireland and was buried in a place called Ard Macha, after her.  Nemed and his people had to fight against the Formorians just as Parthalon had but these were not bloodless, magical battles.  The Nemedians fought fiercely and slaughtered two great Formorian kings, Gann and Sengann.  The Formorians were so enraged by this that they attacked the Nemedians on two later occasions and though Nemed and his people won both battles, the losses were heavy and the hatred on both sides only grew.  As well as the great work of clearing twelve plains, the Nemedians’ built two royal forts, setting in place foundations and structures that were vital for the enduring wellbeing of the people. One fort was built by Nemed’s people and the other by four Formorian brothers who dug the whole royal fort in one day but before the sun rose the next day, Nemed killed the four builder brothers so that they would not improve upon the fort that they had built for him.

Nemed’s people thrived in Ireland for many years but a plague came upon them and killed two thousand of their number with Nemed himself among the dead.  The Formorians saw their chance to strike at the Nemedians while they were weakened by this tragedy and took over Ireland making it a vassal state and imposing huge taxes on the people.  Two thirds of their corn, their milk and their children had to be delivered every year on Samhain to the Formorians, who were led by two kings, Morc and Conand.   The anger and sorrow grew in the hearts of the Nemedians until they could bear it no longer and gathered together to attack the Formorians.  They assaulted the Tower of Conand  on Tory Island and took it by force.   But Morc arrived with reinforcements and the magic of the Formorians caused the sea to rise.  Distracted by their battle fury the Nemedians did not notice the water rising and almost all of them were swept away and drowned.    A few survivors managed to escape on the last ship.  They split up going their separate ways.  Some went North and some went East to Greece and of them we will hear again. These exiles were to prove significant in the rest of the Book of Invasions.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the connections and insights made by participants based on the Bard assumptions that oral storytelling is always heard in terms of modernity.

Connection 1 – Losing touch with Nature
The symbolism of the failure of the Nemedians to be aware of the rising tide while being so obsessed with greed for the Tower of Gold was discussed.  It is a basic responsibility of a sea farer to have an awareness of nature and sea.  And yet this distraction of gold meant they quickly lost touch with nature/sea.  As often with myth the action had unintended consequences,  in this case a disastrous one!

Connection 2 – The Cycles of Immigrants
The Nemedians were the third group of invaders to arrive in Ireland.  This seems to highlight the recurring importance of a diaspora and of people coming in from outside to move things on.  This the Nemedians clearly did with the clearing of twelve plains, the building of forts and what was a very distinctive impact on the landscape.  The mythology of ‘the people from somewhere else’ is beginning to take shape.

Connection 3 – The Fragility of Human Life
As well as the initial drowning the Nemedians were impacted by wars and by plagues (caused Nemed’s death).  In the context of the Covid 19 crisis this was all seen as a reminder of the fragility of the human relationship, both with each other and with nature.

Connection 4 – A Rough Time
The Nemedians of all the invaders had a particularly rough time with the experience of drownings, war and plague.  Was this due to their own failings, hubris, greed, even cruelty (to the builders of their forts)? Or was it just the vicissitudes and precariousness of life.

Connection 5 – The Indigenous People – The Formorians
The matter of the Formorians as the indigenous people was discussed.  They are invariably portrayed as monstrous and cruel (oppressive taxes).  Is this the recurring theme of the demonising or othering of indigenous people so characteristic (as we were to see later) of some of the practices of Chosen People Myth which have been raised during this Immersion 2.  The question was raised, are we to see the Formorians as the Cowboy  and Indian villains or as representative of an Irish Dreamtime – those who sung the world into being.  Or perhaps as symbolic representatives of the relentless tests of nature.

Connection 6 – Islands as strongholds of the Old Culture
One recurring theme is the Formorians are from and return to the islands off the coast of Ireland.  They then are to be seen as strongholds of the old, pre-Invasion culture.

Connection 7 – Exile and return
Though the Nemedians were to flee and flee to the North, the East and to Britain, two of them were to return as the Fir Bolg (East) and the Tuatha de Danann (North), setting up the cycle of immigration, exile, immigration, exile and so on.

Connection 8 – Theme of Fair Taxation
For the first time the relationship of centre to tribe is highlighted with the matter of unfair taxation being a cause of resentment and war by the oppressed.

Connection 9 – Gaslighting of Myth Telling
In part prompted by the theme of the Immersion 2, Chosen and Not Chosen, the under matter of ‘gaslighting’ of myth telling by a chosen culture was discussed.  Perhaps there are elements of ‘gaslighting’ in the Nemedian story as neither the indigenous people nor the new arrivees are presented in a favourable light.

Connection 10 – The Nature of the Fighting changed
The Battle of the Partholonian/Formorian was very much druidic, one leg, one eye etc.  and no one died.  Here the fighting became fierce and two great Formorian Kings were killed, Gann and Sengann.  This motif of the change in the nature of fighting was noted in the Cú Chulain Ferdia Battle at the Ford (see Immersion 1)  and in a historical context with the arrival of the Vikings.

B – Fir Bolg
The Ideology (Division) of the Fifths

Ireland was left empty for 200 years after the Nemedians were scattered.  The survivors of the Nemedian attack on Conand’s Tower who fled to Greece following Semeon,  and faired very badly there.  There were enslaved for 200 years and made to labour long hours under the hot sun, carrying heavy sacks of clay on their backs.  Their task was to carry the clay to rough mountain peaks until the mountains had such a covering that they became as flowery and fertile as the plains.  They became known as the Fir Bolg, which means the men of the sacks because of these sacks of clay that they were always hauling. These were the “bag men” of Ancient Ireland!

But the Fir Bolgs kept their spirits up by telling each other stories of Ireland, their birth right.  And at last the day came when they were able to escape.  They used the very same sacks that had been their burden to build canoes and coracles and fled from Greece.

The Fir Bolg fleet, such as it was, did not hold together on the voyage and the people landed at different times.  One group, led by the Chieftain Slainga, and his wife Etair, landed first on Saturday the 1st August and then the Chieftains, Gann and Segann, landed on Tuesday with their wives and Oist and Fuath and all their followers and on Friday the last of the Fir Bolg arrived led by the Chieftains, Genann and Rudraige and their wives Liebar and Connacha.  They met together and decided that since they were all kin they would consider this the one taking of Ireland and not fight among themselves.  No lakes burst forth when they landed and they cleared no new plains nor had they to fight against the Formorians for dominion over Ireland.  They did decide to divide Ireland between these five chieftains and that was the first division of the provinces we still know today.

This decision was the very significant establishment of the Four Provinces that was five Cuige because of the very important Fifth Province. This was the Ideology we saw outlined by Fintan mac Bochna in the Settling of the Manor of Tara in Nine Waves Immersion 1. They named the Southern-most province, Munster, and it became the land of poetry and music.  Leinster, in the East, was the land of prosperity and Connacht the land of wisdom, while in the North, the stony soil of Ulster bred strong men and women and became the land of warfare and strife.  In the centre, Meath was the province of the High King, which unified all the others with the seat of the Kings at Tara and the seat of the Druids at Uisneach.

The Fir Bolg ruled Ireland for thirty seven years and had nine kings in all that time. Their first high king of Ireland, Slainge, was the first person ever to be the King of all Ireland. But he only ruled for a year before dying of the plague.  The last king, Eochy, ruled for ten years and during his reign there was no wet except for the dew which fell at night and no year without harvest.  Falsehoods were expelled from Ireland and the law of justice was enacted for the first time, but at the end of thirty seven years, King Eochy was brought news, a new group of people had come to Ireland and they had burned their ships behind them on the beach.     The Tuatha de Danann had arrived!

The Connections and insights from Participants

Below is the material recorded from the small group discussions after the Fir Bolg telling.

Connection 1 – The Fifth Province and the Distributed Power
The Fir Bolg are the bagmen of the world, the humblest and simplest of folk.  Some see them as the Elves (Lord of the Rings) of the Irish.  They take on the task of labourer.  Yet they bring the sophistication of the division of Ireland into five provinces that was later elaborated by Fintan MacBochra in the Settling of the Manor of Tara.

This is bottom up thinking from the humble bag men, an ideology of distributed power, the idea of the sacred centre and the role of that place as a balancing function (kidney) in society. This is a very different mythology from the linear, centralising and hierarchical logic of the Greco Roman Culture. So significant then that the Romans never reached Ireland.

Connection 2 – An Appreciative Framing
What is clear in this Fir Bolg world view is that each of the provinces bring something to the whole: Munster – music, Connacht – wisdom, Leinster – prosperity, Ulster – warfare and the Centre – unity and balance.  Rather than criticising and ‘altering’ this is a philosophy of appreciating.  The assumption being that the whole, in this regard, will be greater than the parts. In each case we are looking at strengths and positive outstanding qualities. This is so different from the modern tendency to “other” and to demonise!

Connection 3 – Immigrants and Innovation
Here is a classic example of the new people bringing in new ideas, and exchanging learning with people who are already here.  Some participants commented on how this is obviously a very different philosophy from the ‘build the wall’ in contemporary political culture (especially US and UK). This whole Mythology can be seen as a culture of one invasion after another. We are all in this sense, from somewhere else, it is just a case of how far back we go!

Connection 4 – Truth and Justice
In addition to the Ideology of the Fifths, the Fir Bolg were also credited with bringing prosperity (harvests), truth (absence of falsehoods) and law of justice.  Much came from these visitors from very humble beginnings.

Connection 5 – Nothing is permanent
In spite of thirty seven years of prosperity the experience (again) of plagues, there is to be a new threat, the arrival of another set of invaders, strange magical people who arrive and then buried their boats – the Tuatha de Danann.

Connection 6 – Not Chosen Theme …. Again
What we know of these people was that they were descended from the Nemedians. We also know that they went to Greece where they fared very badly. They were effectively enslaved. Here again we have the recurring theme of “not chosen-ness”.

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